Oh, Edith. Edith, Edith, Edith. When we left off last time, a mere double-episode after your older sister’s wedding, you had finally become betrothed to older gent Sir Anthony Strallan. Even the mousy—and sometimes downright mean, though we empathize with her plight—middle Crawley sister was to have her day in the sun. And this week’s Downton Abbey, the rare Edith-centric episode, also shines a light on the challenges the show will need to overcome this season.
We begin (not including Laura Linney, natch) with the unmistakable sight of Downton Abbey going into full party mode: the carpet rolled up, the floor scrubbed, the long tracking shot centered on the bride-to-be. Edith may not believe it’s all for her—and her granny, the Dowager Countess, may not think it should be—but her chance has finally come.
And just in time: the question of finding the money to save the estate remains unresolved, and it looks like there’s no resolution in sight, as Matthew remains stubbornly unwilling to spend Reggie Swire’s money on Lavinia’s former rival’s family. (Mary is also stubbornly unwilling to understand his decision—but can you blame her? She’s always felt the familial duty to the house, and she’s more eloquent on the subject than she is on anything else, including her love of her new husband.) Downton will have to be sold, and the wedding is its last hurrah. There’s discussion of the family moving to a smaller home they own in the north of England—Lord Grantham jokes that they can call it “Downton Place,” which would really complicate the merch side of things—while they look for a more permanent situation. The family plans a picnic to visit the house. In case you forgot this was Downton, a picnic = white linens, centerpieces, champagne flutes and a footman serving the meal. But it’s outside! It’s a picnic!
While at the picnic, Mary learns that Matthew has received a letter written by Reggie Swire before the latter died, but doesn’t plan to open it, anticipating that it would be addressed as if Matthew were Swire’s son-in-law. Blurgggggh. Mattttttthew. So annnooooyyying. Mary reads the letter herself and tells Matthew what it said: Lavinia told her father that the wedding was off, but Mr. Swire still had great respect for Matthew. Matthew, however, suspects that someone—perhaps even Mary—has forged the letter, because there was no time for Lavinia to have sent a letter before she died. Maaaaaaaaaatthew! Mary, again stopping her husband from being totally stupid, asks the servants if anyone mailed the letter for Lavinia. And this time, it wasn’t the butler who did it—it was Daisy. Matthew finally believes that the money is his to do with what he pleases, and Downton will be saved! They decide to tell the family after the wedding.
So the wedding day has arrived. Less bunting this time, but Edith does get to have a gorgeous version of her normal hairdo and to wear a gown with a floor-length satin cape; plus, even Lady Mary is nice to her. If only that were the case for everyone at the wedding: at the altar, just as the bride smiles through her veil at the groom, after they whisper a formal “good afternoon” to one another, Sir Anthony Strallan has a change of heart. He can’t lead Edith to a life as a nurse to an older, disabled man, even though she wants to be with him. In front of the whole village, she begs him to change his mind—but the Dowager Countess tells her to save herself and her pride, to “wish him well and let him go.” Strallan walks up the church aisle, alone, and out of the Crawley family’s life. Edith is left to return to the house, where everything is set up for a party, where both her sisters are happily married, to throw her veil over the bannister of the grand staircase and collapse on her bed, with her perfect hair now tiara-rumpled and a cry-face to rival Claire Danes’.
In the aftermath, Matthew tells Robert about Reggie’s money, which Robert accepts on the condition that Matthew invest in the estate rather than just giving the money to his father-in-law. Thus concludeth the latest challenge to the continuity of the Crawley line at Downton, and any chance that the show might become Downton Place.
It also concludes what would probably have been, in a 22-episode American network television season, a ten-episode plot. The ability to condense the question of whether Matthew will accept the inheritance into just three is one of the most appealing qualities of Downton and its British brethren. Matthew’s hesitancy is annoying enough as it is; drawing it out would make the show’s romantic male lead absolutely unbearable to watch. But, at the same time, just because the season is only eight episodes long doesn’t mean it doesn’t need an arc in every story. With the main couple tying the knot in the first episode of the season and the secondary couple married off last season, last week’s premiere—despite scoring four times the average PBS viewership numbers—probably prompted some groans and whispered talk of the show j-ing the s.
What’s happening, though, is less a case of the Fonz on waterskis than it is a normal growing pain for any show that chooses not to depend entirely on what’s often known as UST: unresolved sexual tension. Whether or not Matthew and Mary would get together was the big question for two seasons, and many more years than that in Downton-land. A lesser show might well have drawn it out longer, or at least left Sybil and Tom or Anna and Mr. Bates in limbo. If the only reason you were watching was to see Matthew and Mary hook up, of course you’re finding this season boring, even with shirtless Matthew hanging out last week. It’s really, really easy to mess up a show by allowing the characters to get married and we’re used to giving up on them when the honeymoon is over—but it doesn’t have to be bad. And there’s a reason this show is not called The Crawley Smooch Hour. It’s not about romance; it’s about the estate. It can handle the resolution of major romantic tensions because there’s always more tension lurking in one of the house’s innumerable rooms. For example:
- Tom and Sybil are back in town for the wedding, which is mostly exciting because of the chance for more Tom-n-Matthew BFF fun-times. Men! In tuxes! Playing pool! Sorry—I mean, billiards! (Sybil, however, doesn’t get a single chance to look dashing: she of the fab harem pants has gone to frump town, which we’ll choose to blame on Irish maternity-wear styles of 1920, which are beyond her control.)
- The well-meaning Isobel Crawley, who gets nothing but a hard time from the ladies of the night—clearly identified by being the only people in England with frizzy hair—whom she has decided to help, has another run-in with Ethel the ex-maid.
- Anna visits Mrs. Bartlett to get her story about the first Mrs. Bates. In her very poetic recounting of the last moments of Vera’s life, Mrs. Bartlett tells of a fearful Vera walking away into the mist, on a night lit by gaslights, after nervously scrubbing pastry from underneath her fingernails, even though Anna thinks the information is worthless.
- Bates, who’s getting pretty scary, is warned that his cellmate has planted contraband in his bed. Hard to tell exactly what it is—a little packet of drugs of some sort, something about which a 1920s-era drugs expert might enlighten us in the comments section?—but Bates finds it in time and stashes it away.
- Also: Edith.
And the real heart of the episode is downstairs anyway, with Mrs. Hughes: she still has not heard back about her biopsy. Carson overhears that she’s ill and—while looking très Magritte in his little hat—tricks Dr. Clarkson into spilling the beans that something’s going on. Carson’s concern for his colleague, all while he remains in the dark about why he can’t hire another footman and while he deals with Thomas tricking Mr. Molesley into spreading a rumor that Miss O’Brien plans to quit, is touching. That non-romantic love is more genuine and less fraught than perhaps any of the other relationships at Downton. Cora’s promise to Mrs. Hughes that, should she be ill, she won’t be left to fend for herself is an idealized version of an employer-employee relationship but it’s weep-worthy nonetheless. And Carson’s joy when the biopsy comes back as “a benign something or other” is one of the sweetest moments in the show’s history—and one more reason why, even robbed of UST, there’s plenty of reason to keep watching.
Dowager Zinger of the Week: “No bride wants to look tired at her wedding. It either means she’s anxious or she’s been up to no good.”
History Lesson of the Week: The Dowager Countess mentions that she would have been happy to pay if Edith wanted a wedding dress from Patou, which Cora says would have run the risk that Edith would look like a chorus girl. But if Edith had gone with a Patou, she would have had a wedding dress that was a part of fashion history: Jean Patou was a French fashion designer whose first couture collection, in 1919, helped move European fashion toward the sleek lines of the 1920s.